Last week, Microsoft’s new Windows RT tablet went on sale, and the Surface 2 is poised to be the best among a very small number of Windows RT slates – but also the first such device with the potential to garner a mainstream following. The revamped tablet has a new look, new hardware, and a price low enough to tempt away a few of the Apple faithful.
But, just in time for this release, Apple once again threw down the gauntlet, challenging tablet manufacturers to step up their game by announcing the iPad Air, the thinnest, lightest, most powerful iPad yet. So how do these two tablets stack up?
Some of the biggest changes to both devices lie within. The Microsoft Surface 2 is outfitted with Nvidia's Tegra 4 (T40) processor, a 1.7GHz ARM mobile quad-core CPU boasting 72 graphics cores. It's paired with 2GB of RAM. The iPad Air, on the other hand, boasts the new A7 processor, which brings the iPad 64-bit architecture, allowing for faster performance, and smoother graphics at higher frame rates. It also opens up all sorts of possibilities for future iOS and OS X crossover as apps are developed for the 64-bit architecture.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has carved out a 32-bit ghetto with Windows RT, putting up walls between the desktop and tablet operating systems. For more on the topic of processors, check out our article: What’s the point of a 64-bit iPhone 5S? Look to the iPad and Mac…
While it's tempting to read something into the raw specs of the processors, it's worth noting that both tablets have tailored the hardware and software to work together, and Windows RT is a very different beast compared to Apple's iOS. How the actual performance and user experience will compare isn't really known.
The storage capacities, however, do compare pretty directly. The new Surface 2 is available configured with either 32GB or 64GB of solid-state memory (we’ll talk more about pricing in a moment). The Apple iPad Air, on the other hand, is available in a broader range of capacities, with 16, 32, 64, and 128GB models available.
However, the Surface 2 has two additional storage options, with a USB 3.0 port providing plug-and-play compatibility with flash drives and external hard drives, and a microSD card reader lets the user bolster the 32 or 64GB of storage with swappable cards of up to 64GB each. Despite consumers vocally requesting similar expandable memory on Apple products, the iPad has no card slot.
The aptly named iPad Air is the lightest iPad ever, weighing in at an absurdly light 470 grams. Weighing 675 grams, the Surface 2 is 5 grams lighter than its predecessor, the Microsoft Surface RT. The iPad Air is also slimmer, measuring a scant 7.5mm thick, and making the fairly svelte 8.9mm Surface 2 look chunky in comparison. The truth is that both slates are extremely thin and light, but the iPad Air is definitely the lighter of the two.
The next big difference is display size and resolution. Although the Surface 2 and the iPad Air are both considered 10in tablets, the Surface offers a slightly larger 10.6in display with a 16:9 aspect ratio. While the iPad Air measures 9.7in, it makes up for this by cramming in more pixels. Microsoft has ramped up the resolution on the Surface 2 from the previous model's ho-hum 1,366 x 768 display to a much nicer 1,920 x 1,080 resolution. But even with full 1080p HD, it doesn't hold a candle to the iPad Air's Retina Display, with its 2,048 x 1,536 resolution. In terms of pure picture quality, the iPad wins.
The Surface 2 offers 1080p cameras both front and back, with a front-facing 3.5-megapixel camera for Skype and other webcam applications, and a 5-megapixel camera on the back for snapping photos and shooting video. Apple also boasts a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera, so there's not much difference there. On the front, however, the iPad has a 1.2-megapixel front camera that only records 720p video. If image quality is essential when video chatting with friends and family, the Surface 2 is the better choice.
One feature that the iPad doesn't offer is the Surface 2’s built-in kickstand. Made of the same magnesium as the tablet chassis, the kickstand lets you prop up the Surface for a laptop-like experience, and the Surface 2 improves upon the previous model with a dual-position stand that offers more adjustability. Apple doesn't have any sort of built-in stand, although the included iPad SmartCover does fold up to prop up one side of the tablet.
Microsoft also offers some fancy covers for the Surface, like the TouchCover 2 (£100) and TypeCover 2 (£110), which update the previous TouchCover and TypeCover keyboards with better typing accuracy and greater sensitivity. However, these are some of the only accessories available for the Surface. The iPad has long enjoyed a veritable ocean of accessories, ranging from cases and keyboards to mini-arcade cabinets and musical instruments – and this broad selection of accessories will surely extend to the iPad Air in the coming weeks. The Microsoft Surface hasn't yet gained the sort of traction to spur similar products.
The same is somewhat true of apps. While Microsoft boasts that the Windows Store offers some 100,000 apps, there's the pesky fact that Windows RT won't support traditional desktop software. Apple's iOS may not support desktop software either, but it has a much broader app selection, with over 475,000 tablet-specific apps and a robust ecosystem of games and media. What the Surface 2 does offer is Office RT 2013, a collection of Windows RT-friendly versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote and (recently added) Outlook. Apple may have plenty of productivity apps, but for many people, these are the only ones that matter.
With 32GB of storage, the Surface 2 sells for £359, taking a £40 price cut from the previous iteration. The comparable iPad Air (Wi-Fi only, with 32GB of storage) sells for £479, with the 16GB version selling at the lowest price (£399). Undercutting the competition by £120 is perhaps the smartest move Microsoft has made with the Surface 2, moving the tablet into a price bracket where people are willing to try something different.
So what do you think? Is the Microsoft Surface 2 the tablet that cracks the code and makes Windows RT a real force in the tablet world? Is Apple’s iPad Air the be-all-and-end-all of tablets? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and be sure to check out our closer look at the Surface 2, and hands-on with the iPad Air (we’ll have reviews of both coming very soon).
We’ve also got plenty of other spec comparisons featuring Apple’s new tablet – there’s our comparison of the iPad Air versus the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition), and our iPad Air versus iPad mini with Retina Display showdown. We’ve also compared the iPad Air to the discontinued iPad 4, for those thinking of upgrading from the latter.
Apple iPad Air
Microsoft Surface 2
2,048 x 1,536 pixels
1,920 x 1080 pixels
Processor and battery
Nvidia Tegra 4
Claimed 10 hrs life
Claimed 10 hrs life
Storage and memory
16 / 32 / 64 / 128GB
32 / 64GB
240 x 169.5 x 7.5mm
275 x 173 x 8.9mm
Windows RT 8.1
Wi-Fi: £399 (16GB); £479(32GB); £559 (64GB); £639 (128GB)
Wi-Fi + Cellular: £499 (16GB); £579 (32GB); £659 (64GB); £739 (128GB)